The Lifecycle of a Vine
Although rain and snow continue to fall across much of the state, spring is officially here, and with it, another wine growing season has begun. Each vintage carries risks and uncertanties, and it is easy to forget the tremendous amounts of labor on the part of the vintner as well as cooperation from Mother Nature herself, to make each bottle possible.
Budbreak usually occurs in March in the Northern Hemisphere. (Add six months for the Southern Hemisphere.) During this period, the first small green shoots begin to sprout on the vine’s canes. Although this is often thought of as the start of a new vintage season, it really begins with winter pruning that occurs several weeks prior. As Kenny Likitprakong of Hobo Wine Company and the mastermind behind our unique red blend last September puts it, “The growing season never stops, but pruning is really when our physical work begins.” Winter pruning is anarduous task that requires great skill and precision. There are several dozen different pruning methods employed around the world, each one suited to certain grape varieties, climates, and vineyard configurations. Pruning a vine too much can lead to a whole host of issues such as uneven ripening or just not having enough grapes to make wine. Pruning too little will allow a vigorous vine to produce too much fruit, often resulting in green flavors or thin, tart wine.
Once the vineyard crew has put their local knowledge to use, it is time for the local weather to begin cooperating. Kenny mentioned that the warm February followed by a rainy March already has the vines a little out of balance. At this early stage however, it shouldn’t cause too much trouble in the long run. The delicate new shoots will soon grow into pretty, delicate flowers. These bunches of flowers will eventually become small clusters of grapes, but not if rain, hail, frost, or wind hits them first. Certain wine regions can be especially prone to these hazards. In France’s Chablis region, for example, entire vineyards were wiped out by fierce storms on the eve of flowering in spring 2016. The financial consequences for these growers were so disastrous, the government had to step in and provide relief funds.
Surviving flowers pollinate themselves, no bees necessary. In a “good” year, about one third of the flowers will each become a teeny, tiny, hard, green grape. The grapes will keep this appearance as they hang on the vine through June and usually most of July. As the dog days of summer linger on, the grapes finally begin to gain sweetness and lose tart acidity. According to David Scheidt of Mastro Scheidt Cellars, the all-star winemaker behind the Sangiovese we released in October 2017, “June is when things get real, you have to start thinking about yield.” Balanced vines produce balanced wines, but sometimes they need a shoulder to lean on. To achieve optimal results, farmers can put their green thumbs to use in a variety of ways. By pulling some leaves off of the vine, they can let more sunshine through, speeding up the ripening process. However, grapes, like people, can overdo it in the sun and get sunburned too. Vineyard managers can manipulate the canopy of leaves to provide more cover because everyone enjoys a little time in the cabana.
August is usually when ripening kicks into the next gear. This period is called veraison. As the grapes hit the home stretch before harvest, they begin to change color. White grapes become more translucent, and red grapes change from green to red. These days winemakers can run chemical analysis on grapes to figure out sugar and pH levels to assist them in making picking decisions. Many traditionalists prefer, however, to choose when to pick based on heading out into the vineyard themselves and tasting the fresh grapes. Once the grapes are ready to be harvested, the vintner must make sure they have a sufficient number of people to complete the picking. Some estates have enough year-round staff members to get the job done. In these cases, it is all-hands-on-deck, with family members, tasting room staff, and the wholesale sales team all pitching in. Most vineyards in California are harvested by teams of migrant workers. Labor is often in short supply, and oftentimes vinters are forced to wait longer than they would like to assemble the harvest team. Many harvests occur just after midnight, under large temporary lights. The fresh flavors of the grapes are preserved by picking in these cool temperatures. With the grapes safely in the winery, the vine will shed its leaves and, if the weather works out, enter a period of dormancy. Cold days are needed for this to happen and, unfortunately in California lately, mild winters have meant vines have not been getting the proper amount of rest. David Scheidt considers this to be one of the most important parts of the yearly cycle. With climate change becoming more noticeable in California’s growing regions, this necessary rest period is in jeopardy.
I asked both Kenny and David about the effect last Fall’s catastrophic fires may have on this upcoming vintage. They both agreed that it is too early to tell. David recently tasted a wine from last year’s harvest that was badly tainted by smoke, but vintners are looking forward to a much better end to the growing season in 2018. Fortunately vines, like those who tend them in Wine Country, are highly resilient.
The intense nature of the farming of grapes speaks to wine truly being an agricultural product. Each year, more vineyards around the world are being converted to sustainable, organic, and biodynamic viticulture. Even growers who take a relatively hands-off, non-interventionalist approach to farming their vineyards put in tireless hours to ensure the grapes are healthy come harvest. With budbreak occurring right now at many sites in California, it is a great time to reflect on how fortunate we are to get to enjoy the fruits of this labor.